I Watched as Sandra Bernhard Transformed Into a Star on "The King of Comedy," Which Celebrates 30 Years This Weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival
In 1980 the original “Mother Monster” Sandra Bernhard was performing at the Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. No wider than a microphone, she is singing “Desperado” to a stunned audience, her Mick Jagger lips quivering.
In the shadows I stood captivated watching and learned everything there was to know about being in “the moment on stage."
I was a young unformed stand-up comedian then. I was lean. I was mean and I had an “electronic mullet.” The punks were going higher up in office and I was prepared.
Sandra Bernhard and I shared the bill many nights where I would watch her putting her face right into the audience with such a fierce intention. I had never seen a girl do this.
Sandra demonstrated to me that it’s was more than okay to be shy, headstrong and driven with the uncomfortable truth on stage, and that comedy itself was better when life was keenly observed.
So while Robin Williams, David Letterman and Sim Kinison all intertwined like snakes looking for themselves in Time Magazine, Sandra and I methodically scrutinized the pages of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine mumbling in awe at vivid colors used on the covers.
We’d to go the Beverly Center and see movies like “The Coal Miners Daughter," where we were mutually stunned by Sissy Spacek's phenomenal turn as Loretta Lynn.
We debated the artistic worth of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" vs. "Mommie Dearest" and in that distant Hollywood that seems now to be forever shrouded under a layer of brown pollution, Sandra and I became friends.
Those friendships we make long ago are so meaningful for they are forged in the hard rain of “promises” when anything is possible. Transparent, our souls touch and for a brief moment, lessons are exchanged.
Mahatma Gandhi said a “society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable."
Then Hollywood shall be accountable to how they have treated Sandra who raised the bar for vulnerability and rage on screen.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of “The King of Comedy,” the Martin Scorsese film about damaged outsiders who conspire to torment Jerry Lewis, a film which inadvertently examines human bondage and is complete tour de force for Sandra who plays Masha, one of the kidnappers.
"The King of Comedy" is about a people, who are not comedians. Those frantic hostile pranksters. The ugly outsiders who we ignore and are rude to everyday, who stand just off camera like Rupert Pupkin and Masha.
Scorsese saw many actresses that month Sandra auditioned at the Chateau Marmont, which was steps away from my first apartment on Crescent Heights Boulevard, so on her way back Sandra would cave in on to my couch.
“Is Marty going to hire me?” she asked.
Sandra’s take-no-prisoners stare is startling.
I had no clue. I was just impressed that someone who had met Martin Scorsese was sitting in front of me.
In 1980 Hollywood was in amber. Phone calls took days to be returned, afternoons were spent looking out the window listening to Debbie Harry sing “Call Me” on the clock radio.
Sandra listened to Glenn Gould and Bill Evans. Which I just thought was so sexy and cool.
“Bill Evans, that's all I need to sleep, “ Sandra winced.
It’s now, more than a just few weeks later and I am in New York City, sitting on Sandra’s king-sized bed over looking Central Park carefully putting ice on her feet. Sandra got the part!
I was invited along for part of the ride passively in the “Yoko Ono style,” and I watched as cars collected her and people would discreetly whisper the name “Isabella Rossellini."
At Central Park West and 63rd street was where The Mayflower Hotel stood and it was where every actor working on a movie stayed.
The shabby lobby sometimes resembled “The Love Boat" for Oscar winners. De Niro kept a penthouse there. Amy Irving was riding out her post “Carrie” wave. The Go-Go’s’ breezed in like San Fernando royalty wearing tiny straw hats.
That first night of the shooing I stood till 3 a.m. on a wet street on the upper west side watching Sandra punching the glass of Jerry’s limousine, hurling her head against the hood like Elizabeth Taylor in “Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”
Is the limo glass candy? I hold my breath and wonder if she will hurt herself pounding at the thick glass like a lioness going after cubs.
Jerry Lewis stands coolly looking slightly put off as they keep doing it over and over. Sandra transfers her self to the film. That rawness that is still so threatening to people, that raw itchiness as tender as Bibb lettuce is startling.
The general public uneasily won’t give it up for original front liners, choosing instead to give it up to fake faux weirdos. The genetically modified actress who seem to last no longer than snow on a hot rock.
The pretty ones. There is nothing wrong with pretty, but there is something very satisfying about a face like Sandra's which looks like it should be on the currency of a 5th world nation.
The most defining and haunting moment of that summer was on July 28th -- the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles to a 19-year-old Diana Spencer.
Sandra and I set our alarm clock for 4 a.m. to be awake to watch it live and took it all very seriously, ordering coffee and then making believe that Diana was our best friend both taking turns giving Diana advice.
In my best English school accent, pretending to be Diana, I would say…
“I am scared.”
Sandra arched dramatically then gripped me by the shoulders her voice a husky feline all-knowing growl.
“You listen to me, Diana Spencer. That minute, the moment, that Prince gives you grief you just come here and sleep in my bed. I will take care of you.”
She meant it, and I wish Diana had really done that.
As the wedding procession began we fashioned turbans for ourselves from the king-sized hotel bedding.
And as Sandra sat next to me under the 35-pound bedspread piled on her head giving her absolute immobility we watched another young person's life be changed in a little silver box.
The camera. That lens seems to alter ones destiny the participant and the viewer.
Sandra’s brand of genuine rage and anger was for a world that is essentially a club for rich white motherfucker men and the damage they make is still stunning to me.
Sadly or maybe "fittingly," Sandra will not be with the graybeards at the Tribeca Event tonight, she will be taking her red beard and performing her music at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Ever the artist’s hero and soldier, she heads out to the dark space protected only by the warmth of the spot light and those lips.
There has always been an immediacy to her work that bleeds into all aspects of her life. She renders everything with great authenticity, humanity. I still stand in awe.
People are always stunned when I tell them that she is one of my dearest friends and always ask, “Is she is nice?"
Not if you’re full of shit and a fake. Not if you're not paying attention. Not if you’re false.
The measure of success? When do you say, "Bravo."
When do you say, “She did it"?
Well, let me say here. She did it and changed the landscape more than just a bit.
The fact is, every day we are all challenged to make waves and Sandra is a girl who had it locked 30 years ago.
Today we may take this for granted in the damp warm forest of Lena Dunham’s "Girls."
But back in 1981, Sandra was a pioneer. She was never going to be boxed in. She owned the power of youthful recklessness and thankfully it has been restored and is now classic.
Sandra Bernhard has always channeled to the disenfranchised making so many people who are gay, straight, pretty and ugly feel that they can be instruments in the orchestration of life.
Desperado, oh, you isn’t getting' no younger
Your pain and your hunger, they're driven' you home
And freedom, oh freedom well, that's just some people talkin'
Your prison is walking through this world all alone